About a year ago, I wrote about how Future of Work was turning into a content arms race. These days, it’s more like all out war.
The workplace was in the throes of a shift even prior to the pandemic, driven by a new generation entering the workforce, the rise of social media-driven side hustles and a tight labor market that gave workers greater leverage with the companies employing them Then, suddenly, workers were forced homewards leading to a realignment of expectations and work-norms that people are still trying to figure out today. Some of this was the lighthearted stuff of Zoom backgrounds – but some of the other was more serious stuff that marked real shifts in worker-employer relations.
There’s no sign of the future of work discussion abating any time soon Pay transparency is becoming a matter of law, “quiet quitting” is a trend discussed so often that it’s already gone through social media’s backlash cycle twice-over, and a generational divide has emerged between those who want to go to the office sometimes and those who plan never to set foot in one again. (And then of course there’s the metaverse-enabled future in which we’ll all discuss what’s new with the Targaryens around the virtual office cooler.)
Given interest in the topic, it’s hardly surprising that a raft of editorial products are now seeking to “own” the conversation around the future of work. Examples include:
- McKinsey, one of the few brands that has suceeeded in make publishing a core competency, has a “Future of Work” section that covers the firm’s perspectives on work, including how AI and automation is changing job creation.
- PBS created “Future of Work,” a series that included a broadcast show that explored changes in the workplace and its impact, and a digital web series that profiled six Americans navigating the new workplace.
- Bloomberg in September launched Work Shift, dedicated to covering the future of the workplace by guiding users on navigating the new landscape, recruiting and retention and career development, via both a website and a newsletter.
- Atlassian’s flagship publication and the core of its content marketing approach is called WorkLife, which for over a decade has covered productivity and recently brought it into the physical realm with a WorkLife event that wrapped last week.
- Digiday launched a new brand covering “how work, workplaces and the workforce are changing to meet new expectations,” also called WorkLife. (Disclosure: The early development of WorkLife was one of my last projects before I left the company.)
- Indeed’s flagship conference FutureWorks, held two weeks ago in New York City, focused on recruiting and talent development.
- Slack is also trying to own the conversation around the future of work via a thinktank it incubated in 2020 called Future Forum, a new book about the company’s research into work, and a conference.
Both publishers and brands seem to have gotten the same memo: That “work” is an important topic that is relevant to almost everyone, and therefore makes for a reasonably good content bet.
The hard thing about creating content about something so universal is that differentiation is a challenge, however. That creates a scramble for incremental advancements in the narrative, and results in various publications churning out variations on the same content with little but variations in quality to set them apart. This is particularly problematic for brand publishers who don’t break news but trade mostly on analysis or research – there’s only so many ways to tell the same story. For brand publishers, this can lead to a dangerous outcome, where their publications drown in a sea of sameness and don’t find the right audience. The result can be a waste of resources and lead to brands losing the opportunity to create content that actually helps the business.
That being said, there are some inklings of where differentiation is possible. Charter, the work-focused media brand that launched in 2021, attempts to differentiate by linking its editorial content with practicality – they host events and offer online training on hybrid work, for example.
Another approach seems to be akin to a typical trade publisher – to cover work and how it’s changing for a specific professional audience or sector. For brand publishers, this can be a neat trick, since it allows them to speak very directly to the sector they operate in. The added advantage is that most brands approach publishing with a deep bench of expertise in house that caan help them imbue content with true authority. Stripe’s magazine, Increment, for example, covered “work” through the lens of software planning and various approaches to work for that very specific discipline.
“Intersections” can also be a useful way to think about differentiation – that is, where two topics intersect can lead to a wealth of stories. First Round Review covers careers and work with a decidedly “advice” bent, speaking to HR execs and founders about how to be a good boss, or ask good questions during an interview. Charles Schwab’s content efforts focus on personal finance and how it intersects with the future of work.
Perhaps the most obvious way to differentiate, albeit one that’s often forgotten as so much of media focuses on packaging and presentation, is to create high-quality content. Even with a crowded topic such as “work,” having better stories, asking more interesting questions, publishing better quality data, or just writing in more engaging ways can be a powerful differentiator.
The Future of Work “bubble” isn’t going to burst, but it’s definitely going to shrink in size. There are only so many times you can write a story about commutes, and only so many publications who will cover it. But as is generally the case in anything publishing, an overall winnowing will be a good thing for those with clear lines of differentiation.